Slovenia beats Slovakia 3-1 in its first Olympic men's hockey tournament
Slovenia forward Anze Kopitar, left, forward Robert Sabolic (55) and Slovenia forward Rok Ticar celebrate after a third period goal against Slovakia during a men's ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP / Julio Cortez)
Larry Lage, The Associated Press
Published Saturday, February 15, 2014 5:34AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, February 15, 2014 9:09AM EST
SOCHI, Russia -- Slovenia is not satisfied with just showing up to play hockey at the Olympics for the first time. Its players want to win.
They made that very clear Saturday.
Anze Kopitar scored the third of three goals in a six-minute stretch of the third period for Slovenia's surprising 3-1 victory over usually steady Slovakia.
"Everybody thought we were going to just have fun here, but the boys really responded well," said Matjaz Kopitar, who is the Slovenian coach and Anze's father. "They want to be a competitive team, and we were rewarded."
Slovenia (1-1) earned a spot in the Sochi Games by beating Belarus, Ukraine and Denmark in last year's qualification tournament.
It was quite a feat for a hockey team ranked 17th in the world from a nation with fewer than 2 million people, seven hockey rinks and only one professional team.
"I'm kinda speechless," said Anze Kopitar. "So happy. This is going to stick with Slovenia for a long time."
If the Slovaks (0-2) don't suddenly start playing better, they won't be sticking around in the tournament much longer.
Slovakia, with 12 NHL players including St. Louis Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak and Chicago Blackhawks star Marian Hossa, finished fourth and fifth at the last two Olympics.
The Slovaks lost to a team with only one NHL player, Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings.
"It's hard to lose a game like this," Hossa acknowledged.
The Slovaks were routed by the U.S. in their Sochi opener and face Russia on Sunday -- perhaps without a key player. Tomas Kopecky left Saturday's game after getting hit in the head in the first period and didn't return.
The two-time Olympian and Florida Panthers forward was standing near the opposing team's net when Slovenia defenceman Sabahudin Kovacevic landed his left elbow on Kopecky's head to clear him out of the way.
The hit is scheduled to be reviewed Sunday for possible discipline.
Slovakia's coach, Vladimir Vujtek, said he didn't know yet if Kopecky would play against the Russians.
After two evenly played periods Saturday, Slovenia was stronger and seemed more inspired in the third.
"We were playing nose to nose. But starting with the first goal, we saw that they were going to win," Vujtek said.
Slovenia's Rok Ticar broke a scoreless tie 3:23 into the final period. Teammate Tomaz Razingar scored midway through the third and Kopitar had a goal 23 seconds later. Halak finished with 28 saves.
Slovenia's goaltender, Robert Kristan, stopped the first 27 shots he faced before Tomas Jurco scored with 17.8 seconds left in the game to spoil his shutout bid. When the game ended, Kristan's teammates skated toward him in the net with ear-to-ear grins, and they hugged.
"It's definitely a big thing for Slovenian hockey," Anze Kopitar said. "I guess now that we have beaten Slovakia, maybe they're not going to mix us up anymore."
Slovenia, which plays the United States on Sunday, clearly showed that it belonged in this tournament. It was competitive for more than two periods against host Russia before losing 5-2 on Thursday, And now it has beaten one of the teams expected to contend for a medal.
"The game against Russia -- we lost, but it was big for us because it showed us we could challenge the big teams in the tournament," Razingar said.